"It takes a lot of fucking up to get good at cooking."
The speaker is Liz Johnson, and she knows of what she speaks. She's currently the executive chef at Freedman's, a Jewish deli that recently opened in Los Angeles, but she's spent the last dozen years working in kitchens around the globe. From Spanish tapas to red-sauce Italian to the rich French cuisine she became famous for at Mimi's in New York City, Johnson has sautéed, roasted and even deep-fried her way to acclaim. In fact, she was recently nominated for a James Beard Award, one of the culinary world's highest honors. "I'm on the long list," she clarifies. "They've got 30 people in each category and then they scale it back. But it's still pretty crazy."
Johnson is 27 years old. She makes a mean ris de veau. She swears like a sailor. She was named "Best Chef of 2016" by The Village Voice. She spent her morning making matzo balls. And she loves heavy metal. "I listen to Pantera pretty much everyday," she enthuses, before rattling off a list of favorites that includes Anthrax, Judas Priest and Slayer. She could go on — and on — but instead she just lets us scroll through the music on her phone, where we clock albums by Arch Enemy, Celtic Frost and what appears to be Deicide's entire catalogue. "I need some new music," she laments. "The last album I bought was the new Meshuggah — which was great, by the way. They're still killing it."
Johnson says she usually doesn't listen to heavy music at work because it takes her out of the headspace required for preparing fine cuisine — and also because it's generally frowned upon in upscale kitchens — but she sees a deep connection between metal and cooking. "I definitely am a lover of the extreme!" she enthuses. "Metal and restaurant cooking sync together in that aspect. You can't get into the restaurant industry without compromising your day-to-day life and throwing yourself into it fully, and metal is a nice complement to that. It's organized chaos."
When we meet Johnson at Freedman's during the closed-for-business lull between the organized chaos of lunch and dinner service, she's got the words "bananas" and "nastur" — short for nasturtiums, an edible flower with seeds that can be used in place of capers — written on her forearm in black marker. They're reminders of what she had to pick up on the way to work today. "Believe it or not, there's a banana shortage in the world right now," she informs us. Luckily, nasturtiums are in abundance: "There's a place by my house where they grow, so I just pick them," she says. "It's probably illegal, but I do it frequently."
Johnson has never let obstacles — rules, geography, school, gender, age — get in her way. Growing up in Schenectady, New York, she got her first restaurant job at age 15. "Since I was born, I've always wanted to be a chef," she says. "It's just something that was in me inherently. I never really attempted anything else, and I've never held a job that wasn't in a kitchen."
In high school, Johnson enrolled in an accelerated program that allowed her to complete all the required courses for her senior year in just three months. Then she took classes at Schenectady County Community College, which she describes as "a dumpy-looking school that actually has a legit culinary program." She says her mom, a classical pianist, was completely supportive of her abbreviated high school career: "She was like, 'It's obvious you suck at high school, and cooking is what you love.'"
Johnson got into metal around the time she got her first job. A friend of her sister gave her a flash drive containing all the music from his laptop. "There was an album by Death on there — The Sound of Perseverance," she recalls. "I still love that album to this day. There's just something about it. 'Bite the Pain' was the first song I heard off it, and I was so into it. That was the first metal band that I listened to."
This was back when the music website last.fm was popular, so Johnson created an account and plunged down the heavy-metal rabbit hole. She got into obscure Swedish death metal like Paganizer and Ribspreader while discovering what would become one of her favorite bands, Decapitated. As a teenager, Johnson would sneak out and go to shows at Northern Lights, a music venue in nearby Clifton Park, New York, that has since changed its name to Upstate Concert Hall. "The best concert I went to was the very first day of the very first Summer Slaughter tour," she says. "It was the best day of my life. Necrophagist was supposed to play but something happened to their plane, so Decapitated ended up playing an extra-long set. I got thrown onstage, and I was like, 'This is it. This is the pinnacle of life for me.'"
While it might've been the pinnacle of her concert-going career, her cooking career was just getting started. Johnson went to the Culinary Institute of America, a prestigious school in Hyde Park, New York. The experience changed her palate completely. "I remember eating Subway sandwiches growing up," she says. "But I went back to Subway with a friend of mine on a break from school and was like, 'This is fucking disgusting.' And he was like, 'What happened to you?' That was a big moment for me. I was changing."
After CIA, she moved to Boston and worked at the popular tapas restaurant Toro under James Beard Award–winning chef Jamie Bissonnette, an avowed fan of hardcore bands like Converge and Hatebreed. (He later told Johnson he'd given her the job because she wore Doc Martens to her interview.) At one point, Bissonnette gave Johnson a copy of Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, which features recipes from the renowned Copenhagen restaurant of the same name — a place that was declared "Best Restaurant in the World" by Restaurant magazine in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. "He got it for me because he knew I was a huge metalhead and that I listen to Scandinavian metal," she explains. "Plus, I'm part Norwegian. Not a lot, but I like to brag about it because, you know — black-metal capital of the world."
The Noma cookbook, and specifically the philosophy espoused therein, precipitated yet another life-changing event. "They basically say, 'We're only gonna buy ingredients within a five-hour radius of our restaurant," she explains. "'We're not gonna serve French food' — and that's what pretty much all fancy chefs were doing at the time. 'We're not gonna serve foie gras. We're not gonna serve lobster. We're not gonna serve caviar.' That was a big deal at the time for a fancy restaurant. At Noma, it was more about putting a unique spin on traditional Danish food."
At this point, it's 2011. Johnson swoons over the cookbook. She sends Noma an email saying she works at a tapas restaurant in Boston. She's part Norwegian. She wants to fly to Copenhagen to work for them — for free. They got back to her within 15 minutes. "I think it was just good timing," she deadpans. "They basically said, 'Let's do this.'"
Johnson spent a month working at Noma as a stagiaire, or culinary intern. She clocked in at 5 a.m. every day and stayed late into the night. "It was insane, but it really opened my eyes," she recalls. "Going overseas, there were all these restaurants and chefs I hadn't heard of — people I wanted to work with and be around. I didn't learn very much about cooking there — if you're a stagiaire you don't get to cook — so I did a lot of juicing and herb picking. Bitch work, basically. But I met my fiancé there, who was also working as a stagiaire."
"He's not a metalhead," she adds with a laugh.
After returning to the States for a while, Johnson and her fiancé, Will Aghajanian, moved to Japan for six months. They got jobs at separate French restaurants. "It's nearly impossible to get work at a Japanese restaurant in Japan — especially if you're a girl," Johnson explains. "So my only option was this French restaurant in Tokyo. But it was cool."
From there, Johnson landed in New York City. First, she worked at an upscale Mexican restaurant with another metalhead chef. Then she was put in charge of Mimi, a tiny French bistro with just 27 seats. "It was super strange," she says. "I was going from a restaurant where I was a line cook, and all of a sudden I had a staff. I'm giving people orders and making executive decisions. I'm a Virgo, which means I'm kinda bossy inherently, so it was natural for me, but it was totally different."
At Mimi, Johnson really started flexing her culinary skills. She says the owners wanted it to be a traditional French bistro, glutted with escargot and the like, but Johnson expanded the scope of the menu considerably. "Half the food on the menu was not French," she explains with a laugh. "Our lobster dish, for instance, was straight-up Chinese: deep-fried lobster with wok-fried greens. But nobody knew that, and it had escargot butter on it, which is French. Some traditional French food is pretty bland, so for me it was less about keeping it French and more about, 'How can I make this the most delicious thing you've ever eaten?'"
"It's the same here," she says of Freedman's. "I don't think Jewish food is good. It's too heavy. It's food for sustenance and survival. Some people think you should keep it traditional because it's what they grew up on. But I don't have that connection, so I'll put MSG on a latke, you know? It's good!"
She points to Freedman's half-sour salad as another innovation based on traditional ingredients. "I'm not super stoked on half-sour pickles," she explains. "They're like watery cucumbers. But they're a traditional Jewish ingredient, so we should have it on the menu. So how can I do something different than every Jewish deli, which puts them on the side of a sandwich? That's how the half-sour salad was born. It's a cucumber salad with a ton of herbs and avocado and our 'Everything Spice,' which is like bagel spice plus nori [seaweed] and fried shallots. It tastes a little Asian, but that's what makes it different."
At Mimi, because the restaurant was so small, Johnson was able to implement the locally sourced ingredients policy she picked up at Noma. "We could get all this awesome stuff because we didn't need that much of it," she explains. "Like we'd only need a case of something — or one cow. That's harder to do at a big restaurant."
Johnson brought Aghajanian in to work alongside her at Mimi. Business was slow for months, she says, until GQ and New York magazine published glowing reviews. "We blew the fuck up," she enthuses. "We went from totally dead to a line out the door literally overnight. It was one of the scariest things ever."
As Mimi blew up, so did Johnson. Next thing she knew, celebrity chef Tom Colicchio dropped her name on Larry King Live. "That was a huge fucking deal," she acknowledges. "That's like if Dio was being interviewed and mentioned your name. He's a legend in the culinary world, but even people outside that world know who he is."
Despite the restaurant's rousing success — and her own as its head chef — Johnson left Mimi after a little more than a year. "It was time," she says. "I felt like I had tapped out there. I did everything I wanted to do. I just felt like I had places to go, and I guess that place was L.A."
These days, Johnson gets to Freedman's at 10 a.m. every day and leaves at midnight. Which doesn't leave a whole lot of time for metal shows. "I saw Meshuggah play live in New York about a year ago," she laments. "That was actually the last band I saw live."
Despite the long hours, there's only one other career Johnson would even consider. "Being in a metal band has always been a dream of mine," she reveals. "I used to play drums, but I just didn't give it my all. I was already good at cooking, and I could tell drumming was going to take a little more effort to set myself apart, so I went with cooking. But I've always been drawn toward percussion and I'm pretty good at keeping a beat."
It seems unlikely that Johnson will find the time to become a ripping tech-death drummer — almost as improbable as her ever taking on a non-kitchen role or "going corporate," as so many other executive chefs have before her. "I just don't think I could do it," she says. "I hate emails, so that would be a problem. I just wanna keep cooking, and I don't think I'll ever stop."